Pharma’s Reputation Gap: Consumer Business Innovation

Pharma has an image problem; innovation is the answer. From pricing and value to safety and quality, there are few elements of the pharmaceutical industry that haven’t been subject to harsh criticism by society — it’s a long-term trend.

Headlines on exploitive pricing practices are just the most recent examples of pharma’s corporate social “irresponsibility” presented for public vilification. Right or wrong, pharma remains a perennial target and a popular bogeyman among politicians, the media and a broad range of interest groups.

Let’s face it, Americans have a terrible view of the pharmaceutical industry, which is “now rated one of the worst industries” according to Gallup analyst Jim Norman. In Gallup’s annual measure of 25 major U.S. business sectors, the percentage of Americans with a positive view of the pharmaceutical industry dropped from 40% in 2014 to 35% in 2015. [1] Gallup’s polling data revealed only the oil  and gas industry (ranking last 10  times) and the federal government (which took the bottom spot itself for three years) have consistently scored lower.

Owning and addressing this reality with tangible action is crucial to our future. Pharma’s poor reputation is hurting our business, limiting available investment, and, perhaps most damaging, leading the brightest minds away from the pharmaceutical industry.

Bad Public Opinion Leads to Bad Business Environments

Recent headlines notwithstanding, pharma’s brand equity and reputation is a critical issue that the entire supply chain must respond  to more vigorously. During the recent political cycle, presidential candidates Clinton and Trump offered remarks critical  to  the  industry. [2,3] Citing  high profile price increases, Hillary Clinton’s policy brief declared “Between 2008 and 2015, drug makers increased the prices of almost 400 generic drugs by over 1,000 percent.” [4]  Prior to the election both candidates proposed bills and policy reforms to regulate the industry’s assumed excesses and curtail future profiteering.

And the election did not end the rhetoric. Continuing the necessary debate on pharmaceutical pricing, Donald Trump said at his first  post-election news conference that pharmaceutical companies are “getting away with murder” and vowed, “We are going to start bidding. We are going to save billions of dollars over time.” [5]  If  not reversed, the poor perception of the pharma industry will inevitably lead to policies damaging to the industry, including price controls and limits on intellectual property protection, discouraging costly research into cures and treatments.

Uncertainty Turns Away Investment

A poor reputation hits companies where it hurts — in the stock price. Investors shy away from such industries, and reduce investment even more as uncertainty increases. Part of pharma’s consumer “brand” has become its alleged exploitive pricing — which continues to prompt remarks like those of the president. According to Forbes January 11, after Donald Trump’s remarks targeted high drug prices, billions fled biotech and pharma stocks in a steep selloff. [6] Shares of Pfizer, Endo and  BMS were  all  identified by Forbes as the “biggest losers”  in the wake of the Trump press conference. The uncertainty of future drug prices in light of the price controls  proposed by Trump had a real negative impact on pharma stock valuation across the sector.

Markets value innovation in pharma above all else. In the same article, Forbes noted Merck managed to beat the trend, ending the day up by 2.6%, the Dow’s best performer on the announcement that the FDA  accepted its request for an accelerated review of its new drug for patients with advanced lung cancer. With a bad reputation stifling the flow of market capitalization into research, the next generation of cures may be delayed.

Poor Reputation Repels Talent

Pharma’s bad image is creating other losses that may not be seen for decades. “Individuals want to work for organizations with a positive reputation and ethical c-suite leadership,” said Jill Schwieters, president of Cielo Healthcare, commenting on a recent Corporate  Responsibility magazine survey on reputation and talent acquisition. [7] “The research demonstrates that a bad reputation could cost real money by increasing recruiting costs as organizations perceived as unethical struggle to successfully recruit women and Millennials.”

The declining availability of scientific, technology, engineering and math graduates  is well documented. Pharma is already challenged to attract top talent and the negative connotation pharma carries is doing nothing to help the situation. It’s going to be tough for pharma if the best minds aren’t on board to fuel its future.

The Only Way to Fix the Perception is to Own It

All too often pharma’s answer to negative press has been to assume that it is a communication problem. “If only society knew the good that pharma does” or “Drug pricing is too complex for people to understand, we  have to explain it better” are common responses, but pharma’s poor reputation will  never improve unless the industry can reconcile price versus value in the public’s eye.

Pharma needs to own its reputation and act to address it by better serving the interests of patients with products that directly meet their needs. We need to start thinking like a consumer business.

If a company like apple discovered that half of cell phone buyers could not properly use an iphone, would they not take action to improve the user experience?

The Answer Is Innovation — Meeting the Patient’s Needs

Research  from the New England Healthcare Institute revealed something interesting: drugs that are too expensive to consumers or that are too difficult or too complex for people to take as prescribed generate as much as $290 billion in direct but avoidable health care costs — otherwise a third of all unnecessary health care waste and spending. [8]

A  key cause of this waste  is the poor pharmionic attributes (the drug’s effectiveness in the real world rather than in a controlled clinical study) of highly-consumed drugs —  especially those treating chronic age-related disease categories like arthritis and heart disease. When geriatric patients, a major drug-consuming constituency, can’t or won’t take their medications properly and fail to adhere to their prescriptions, they tend to go  to the hospital for long, expensive and unnecessary hospital stays.

The fact is that approximately half of patients are not taking their medicines as prescribed. [9]  If a company like Apple discovered that half of cell phone buyers could not properly use an iPhone, would they not take action to improve the user experience?

With medication adherence at the center of unnecessary costs and poor health outcomes, it’s an obvious opportunity for the industry to take a leading role in reducing health care’s  tremendous bill and improving the user experience — just the thing to improve public perception.

The Technology to Make Convenient, Affordable and Easy-To-Use Medicines Is Here

Combining effective drugs, convenient delivery and personalized analysis of data is one way that we  can improve the patient experience. The September 2016 FDA approval of Medtronic’s MiniMed 670G hybrid  closed  looped  system, the first FDA-approved device that  is intended  to automatically monitor glucose (sugar) and provide appropriate  basal insulin doses, is a good example.[10] The easier it is for patients to automatically control blood sugar level excursions, the better they will appreciate the industry.

Innovations in packaging, delivery and data sharing are at the forefront of the development and study against drug non-adherence. Contract manufacturers and supply  chain partners are leading the effort. Unither Pharmaceuticals, for example, is developing unit dose technology — forms that are proven to enhance adherence — combined  with communications technology to monitor the use of pharmaceuticals in real time. Our technologies benefit patients by offering improved safety and compliance with premeasured single doses that are portable and convenient, and reduce the risks of medication errors.

The pharmaceutical industry is at a critical point in its history. Our reputation must improve. If we fail to turn the tide of public opinion, our favorable business environment, available investment and future talent may be lost. Far worse, society will lose out on the potential good that this industry can achieve. It is time we think like a consumer business and innovate in new ways to provide more convenient, affordable and easy-to-use medicines that the public will value.


  1. Norman, Jim. “Americans’ Views of Pharmaceutical Industry Take a Tumble.” Gallup. 14 Sep. 2015. Web.
  2. Wieczner, Jen. “This Is Why  Hillary Clinton’s Attack on Drug Price  Hikes Doesn’t Add Up.” Fortune. 4 Mar.  2016. Web.
  3. Haddon, Heather. “Trump Vows to Take On ‘Powerful’ Drug Companies, Drive Down Prices.” Washington Wire. Web.
  4. “Hillary’s Plan to Respond to Unjustified Price Hikes for Long Available Drugs.” The Briefing. Web.
  5. Trump says Pharma ‘Getting Away with Murder,’ Stocks Slide. Reuters. 11 Jan. 2017. Web.
  6. Schaefer, Steve. “Trump Press Conference Snuffs Out Stock Rally, Slams Drug  Companies.” Forbes. 11 Jan. 2017. Web.
  7. CR Survey Report: Corporate Reputation Affects Talent Acquisition. Rep. Corporate Responsibility Magazine. 11 Feb. 2016. Web.
  8. Thinking Outside the Pillbox: A System-wide Approach to Improving Patient Medication Adherence for Chronic Disease. Rep. New England Healthcare Institute. Aug. 2009. Web.
  9. Osterberg, Lars, Terrence Blaschke. “Adherence to Medication.” New England Journal of Medicine. 353  (2005): 487-489. Web.
  10. FDA Approves First Automated Insulin  Delivery Device for type 1 Diabetes. U.S Food and  Drug Administration. 28 Sep. 2016. Web.


Kevin Haehl

Formerly with Unither Pharmaceuticals.